The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The relentness march of outsourcing

February 5, 2007

The Super Bowl score is the AP’s lead story right now; needless to say, I dropped down through the wire reports. I discovered that India not only leads the US in cheap call centers, but that the country also enjoys a capital/labor comparative advantage in surrogate motherhood.

Surrogate motherhood is among the latest in a long list of roles being outsourced to India, where rent-a-womb services are far cheaper than in the West.

“In the U.S. a childless couple would have to spend anything up to $50,000,” Gautam Allahbadia, a fertility specialist who helped a Singaporean couple obtain a child through an Indian surrogate last year, told Reuters.

“In India, it’s done for $10,000-$12,000.”

Fertility clinics usually charge $2,000-$3,000 for the procedure while a surrogate is paid anything between $3,000 and $6,000, a fortune in a country with an annual per capita income of around $500.

But the practice is not without its critics in India with some calling it the “commoditisation of motherhood” and an exploitation of the poor by the rich.

The cultural dimensions of the whole thing seem rather interesting. Supporters stress India’s “special” suitability for globalized reproduction:

“It’s true I’m doing this for money, but is it also not true that a childless couple is benefiting?” said Rituja, a surrogate mother in Mumbai, who declined to give her full name.

For the surrogates — usually lower middleclass housewives — money is the primary motivator.

For their clients it’s infertility or — some claim — educated working women turning to hired wombs to avoid a pregnancy affecting careers.

But there is also a social dimension to their service, an empathy with the childless in a society that views reproduction as a sacred obligation, and believes good deeds performed in this life are rewarded in the next one, experts say.

“Surrogate mothers are giving their (the eventual parents’) lives a new meaning. For them the money they pay is just a token gesture that by no way substitutes their gratefulness,” said Deepak Kabir, a Mumbai-based gynaecologist.

The rest of the article suggests we might see Kabir’s claims as just so much marketing.

Surrogacy as a temp job may be a lucrative deal but traditional attitudes to sex and procreation, especially in the countryside, mean Indian surrogate mothers often invent cover stories for their neighbours.

Most say they are carrying their husband’s child, and once the baby is delivered to the intended parents, they say the newborn has died. Some go to other towns and return after delivery, telling neighbours they were visiting relatives.

“It’s a lie we have to tell, otherwise how can we earn this much money?” said a 29-year-old prospective mother at a Mumbai clinic. “A lie told for a good cause is not a sin.”

I don’t find any of this completely outrageous; all things being equal (and they never are), I’d rather we see third-world countries as having a comparative advantage in life than in death. But I do think there’s a story here about the relentless internationalization of, uhh, production in the contemporary international economy.

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.